A 10-Digit Key Code to Your Private Life: Your Cellphone Number

A 10-Digit Key Code to Your Private Life: Your Cellphone Number
Nov 12 2016

The next time someone asks you for your cellphone number, you may want to think twice about giving it.

The cellphone number is more than just a bunch of digits. It is increasingly used as a link to private information maintained by all sorts of companies, including money lenders and social networks. It can be used to monitor and predict what you buy, look for online or even watch on television.

It has become “kind of a key into the room of your life and information about you,” said Edward M. Stroz, a former high-tech crime agent for the F.B.I. who is co-president of Stroz Friedberg, a private investigator.

Yet the cellphone number is not a legally regulated piece of information like a Social Security number, which companies are required to keep private. And we are told to hide and protect our Social Security numbers while most of us don’t hesitate when asked to write a cellphone number on a form or share it with someone we barely know.

That is a growing issue for young people, since two sets of digits may well be with them for life: their Social Security number and their cellphone number.

Nearly half of all American households have given up their landlines and have only wireless phone service — a figure that has risen more than 10 percentage points in just three years. Among people ages 25 to 29, the share of homes that have only wireless phone service stands at 73 percent, according to government statistics.

Taylor Gallanter, a 23-year-old hair stylist in San Francisco, has had her cellphone number since she was 15. She has never had a landline and doubts she ever will.

She knows how valuable her cellphone number is. She does not provide it on online forms unless it is required. Using her email address as contact information, she said, seems less invasive and risky.

“With just your cellphone number and name, I know they can get all sorts of information about you,” Ms. Gallanter said.

In fact, investigators find that a cellphone number is often even more useful than a Social Security number because it is tied to so many databases and is connected to a device you almost always have with you, said Austin Berglas, a former F.B.I. agent who is senior managing director of K2 Intelligence, a private investigator.

“The point is the cellphone number can be a gateway to all sorts of other information,” said Robert Schoshinski, the assistant director for privacy and identity protection at the Federal Trade Commission. “People should think about it.”

The use of the cellphone number in new, unanticipated ways has echoes in the history of the Social Security number, which was created in 1936. Its original purpose was to enable the nation’s nascent social insurance system to maintain accurate records of workers covered under the program. It was never meant as a general-purpose identification number.



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